The following is a look into the teams that make up PRO Rugby, the first professional rugby competition in North America.
If you love rugby as much as I do, this will be a great way to familiarize yourself with the teams and players. It is almost all my opinion, and should be taken with a grain of salt. I can guess as to who the top teams will be, but until we see them on the field it is just that: a guess. They’re really good guesses though.
The Village of Obetz wasn’t on many people’s radar when it came to PRO Rugby. Outside Columbus, Ohio, it’s near a rugby strong hold and should surprise people with their fan support and talent on the pitch. Given they are the only team in the East, they have a large area to represent.
In the pack, the most recognizable name from abroad is Jamie Mackintosh. Former All Black and Super Rugby journeyman will partner with Angus MacLellan, who has been on the fringe of the Eagle squad. Hooker Cameron Falcon recently received his first Eagle cap in the new Americas Rugby Championship. He’s young and has been around rugby for a long time.
A name in the engine room to look out for is Nick Civetta. He left the states in 2013 to further his rugby career in Italy. Now with the opportunity of PRO, he is returning. In the back row Pierce Dargan makes the trip back to the States after featuring for Trinity. He’s an athletic runner and is always hunting for the turnover.
Three scrummies find themselves on the roster- Shaun Davies, Chris Saint, Robbie Shaw. If I had to guess, Davies will be the starter, but all three will play. It’s a better guess that JP Eloff will lead the team at 10. He also played in the ARC at flyhalf and fullback. Eloff is a skilled 7’s player that can quickly hit a gap in a sleeping defense. Lining up in the centers are some new comers and a veteran. Ahmad Harajly traveled with Mike Friday and the USA 7’s squad for a couple stops, but hasn’t been back in camp. Another new name is Matt Hughston. He’s been a mainstay on the USA South Panthers that play in the NACRA tournament. Adding a little seasoning to the backline is Roland Suniula. He led the Eagles at #10 during the 2011 World Cup. Despite only amassing one victory, Roland showed himself to be a solid choice. He’s listed at center, but could find himself anywhere. The most recent addition to the team in Dominic Waldouck from London Irish. Ohio has quietly assembled a well rounded and dangerous team.
Denver was one of the first cities to be speculated on, but one of the last to be announced. Unsurprisingly for American rugby fans, they have an extremely well built roster. They have the highest contingent of capped Eagles, although some of those are brand new. They also have a heavy South African influence, so if you’re looking for a braai, Denver is the place to hang.
Zach Fenoglio is one of the more senior Eagles on the team with only 8 caps. He’ll also be one of the more active players. Chris Baumann, Ben Tarr, and two Australians, Jake Turnbull and Luke White provide plenty of options at prop. Baumann recently entered the Eagles team and has helped turn a pretty poor scrum into a consistent, stable platform. Ben Landry and Brodie Orth are two more newly capped Eagles. These two might be the best lock pairing in all of PRO. Hanco Germishuys is a young flanker who stands to gain a lot with Pedrie Wannenburg in the squad. Germishuys will miss the first several weeks due to captaining the USA u20s in the Junior World Rugby Trophy.
Niku Kruger was in the running to be the Eagles next scrum half, but there’s been some competition there recently. He’s still in the lead to start in Denver. The other option is Mose Timoteo, who is one of the better players in the Pacific Rugby Premiership.
There are two strong options at fly in Will Magie and Ata Malifa. Magie represented the U.S. in their successful championship run at the 2012 JWRT. Malifa comes from the PRP. The rest of the backline rivals San Diego as far as talent. Mike Garrity and Chad London are two more Eagles to watch out for. Justin Pauga is a huge (literally) player in the PRP and should break out here. With Australian dual code player Timana Tahu, Denver has a lot to be confident about heading into their first match.
Sacramento isn’t known as a rugby hotbed, but with recent showings at Bonny Field to see the Eagles play they’ve shown that they can put butts in seats. As of now, they are actually playing out of the largest stadium- Bonny Field holds over 11,000. Led by head coach Luke Gross, famous Eagle from the late 90’s, they may not have the name recognition that other teams are full of, but they have a strong forward pack and plenty of talent 9-15.
There’s no lack of size in the front row with prop Olive Kilifi, capped Eagle, and hooker Ray Barkwill, capped Maple Leaf. Flanker John Quill should vie for most pilfers by the end of the season, and No. 8 Kyle Sumsion from BYU brings a little more ball handling skill. Sacramento doesn’t have as many forwards signed as other teams, which means there should be a couple players that aren’t full time filling out the squad. That doesn’t mean a drop off in talent, it’s possible some players can’t leave their full time jobs.
Jope Motokana is an electric scrum half that gets the ball out quick. He’s U.S. eligible so it will be interesting to see if he challenges for a spot on the Eagles roster for the June test matches. Garrett Brewer should be his other half and was a St. Mary’s product that most recently played in Ireland. Their strong point should be in the centers, with Mirco Bergamasco and Nemia Qoro. There won’t be another center in PRO with as much experience as Mirco, and Nemia cut his teeth in the Junior World Rugby Trohpy. The danger man comes in the form of Australian Harry Bennett. He’s been a continuous threat to score in the Pacific Rugby Premiership and should be able to compliment the inside and outside backs.
Of all the talent to go around, it is my opinion that San Diego came out strongest, but an argument could be made for Denver. The roster hasn’t been fully fleshed out, but there isn’t a position that doesn’t have a well known player listed. Ray Egan is at the helm and his assistant is also John Mitchell’s backs coach, Rob Hoadley. My heart may be elsewhere, but my brain might be picking San Diego for the first championship.
Canadian props Hubert Buydens and Jake Ilnicki were great signings for San Diego. Having two players with an international background up front will go a long way in this first season. One of the break out players for the Eagles over the last year is hooker Joe Taufete’e. He’s deceptively athletic and has a penchant for sneaky picks in rucks. A pair of locks to rival Denver will be playing in San Diego. Tai Tuisamoa and Brian Doyle both play for Old Mission Beach Athletic Club in the PRP. They’ve been instrumental in bringing the team into second place in that competition. Two more players come from the PRP in the loose. Tim Barford, also from OMBAC, and Jabari Zuberi from Santa Monica finish off a formidable pack.
The talent in the backline starts out strong with Tom Bliss at scrum half. He’s a young American that’s played professionally in England for several seasons. U.S. fans are high on him and PRO should be a informative look into his future with the Eagles. Kurt Morath from Tonga should get the nod at fly. Although he’s 31, he should be head and shoulders above his opposing number. What’s really scary is who he has to work with: Phil Mackenzie (Maple Leafs), Ryan Matyas (USA 7s), Andrew Suniula (Eagles), Jean-Baptiste Gobelet (Stade Francais), Taku Ngwenya (Biarritz), Tim Stanfill (Eagles), and Mike Te’o (Eagles). I could go into further detail, but that would take too long. There doesn’t look to be a weak spot anywhere on the roster.
It’s really no surprise California has three teams in the inaugural PRO season, and it’s less of a surprise that San Francisco is one of them. Young, newly capped Eagles highlight the roster, and they are bolstered by some strong foreigners. Mils Muliaina is probably the biggest name in the entire organization. He won’t single handedly win the championship, but he brings talent and experience like none other.
Patrick Latu has been getting a lot of hype heading into the season, and at prop it’s hard to hide once the game starts. He’s been around the Eagles before, and San Francisco will be heavily reliant on him for a stable scrum. Making his return to the States at hooker is Tom Coolican. Coolican was a reliable pick for the Eagles a couple years ago and it looks like he’s interested in pushing for that spot again. Two big names in the loose forwards are Alec Gletzer and David Tameilau. Gletzer is a University of California product with tremendous upside. He’s a powerful runner, but he was shifty enough to help Cal win a 7s National Championship. Tameilau has been in the pipeline since his days with the U20s, and when he had his time to shine in the Americas Rugby Championship he exceeded expectations. If he doesn’t stiff arm you to the ground or bowl you over, he just might out pace you.
Orene Ai’i leads the backs. As a former Player of the Year on the 7s World Series, he’ll be pleased with the players around him. The power at inside center comes from Nick Blevins, a stand out for Canada. Despite his size he’s a sneaky runner. Kingsley McGowan and Colin Hawley come from rival colleges and have different playing styles, but they’re both dangerous wings and looking for a spot on the national team. Then there is Mils Muliaina. The fact a 100 cap All Black is about to play in America shows how far the game here has come. He’ll do more good for the team than just his on field performance, and the time spent around him by the younger players will be invaluable.